Date of Award

1-1-2010

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

History

First Advisor

Patricia Sullivan

Abstract

By the end of the twentieth century, the Baha'i Faith was the largest non-Christian religion in South Carolina, and it was well known for its longstanding commitment to promoting racial harmony, interfaith dialogue, and the moral education of children and youth. Its message was simple and powerful: in the Orient in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christ had returned. His new name was Baha'u'llah, the "Glory of the Father," and the transforming power of his Word would excise the cancers of prejudice and injustice from the broken body of humanity.

The religion owed much of its strength in the state to a series of campaigns from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, in which more than ten thousand people from all walks of life—from young white college students to elderly black former sharecroppers—had become Baha'is. However, the origins of South Carolina's robust Baha'i movement lay not in the social upheavals of the 1960s, but in painstaking efforts to build an interracial faith community during the long decades of segregation and disfranchisement. In contrast to nearly every other religious organization in early-twentieth century South Carolina, the Baha'is developed an explicit policy of promoting racial integration at the local level. Facing ostracism, slander, and violence, they succeeded in attracting an astonishingly diverse membership. Focusing on the period from South Carolinians' first contacts with the faith in the late 1890s to the formal dissolution of the Jim Crow regime in the mid-1960s, this study posits the Baha'i movement in South Carolina as a significant, sustained, and deceptively subtle attack on the oppressive racial ideologies of the twentieth-century South and on the Protestant orthodoxy with which they were inextricably linked.

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